Pirate Latitudes

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Michael Crichton

For many years, Michael Crichton's name was a byword for intelligent, cutting edge fiction, frequently utilising striking new developments in science as the basis of his narratives, or (most famously in 'Jurassic Park') extrapolating scientific possibilities into highly exciting (if implausible) tales of adventure.

After his recent death (at a relatively young age), it was salutary to remember that his writing career had been a very long one - so that when he took a concept that he might have used before (i.e., high tech amusement park goes disastrously wrong with fatal consequences for visitors) he could ensure that there was a lengthy gap so that people barely noticed (look at the plots of 'Westworld' (1973) and the aforementioned 'Jurassic Park').

And now we have his final book, published posthumously, 'Pirate Latitudes'. For once, though, it looks as if Crichton were following the pack rather than leading it - but things are not that clear cut as they might initially have seemed.

'Pirate Latitudes' takes the reader back to 1665, when Charles II’s Jamaican colony is under serious threat, besieged on every side by the voracious Spanish empire. At the centre of this troubled outpost is its crowded capital, Port Royal, a lively (if festering) hangout for criminal dregs, who inhabit its taverns and brothels.

This is the time of the privateer, when (with tacit royal sanction), ship's captains could make sorties against Spanish ships and outposts, plundering at will - just so long as the Governor and King Charles are taken care of.

Michael Crichton's protagonist in this colourful mix is Captain Charles Hunter, educated at Harvard and a man with keenly developed survival instincts. He is made aware a treasure galleon, which is at anchor in the heavily fortified Spanish island of Matanceros, and Hunter’s interest is piqued - not least because this means he will be able to take on Philip of Spain's most ruthless enforcer, Cazalla.

The stage is set for what will either be a glorious bit of naval smash-and-grab or that will end in the ignominious death of Charles Hunter and his motley crew.

All of this, of course, suggests that Crichton (always a man aware of the commercial possibilities of any material) had been looking at the phenomenal success of the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series of films, and there is no doubt that some of the spirit of fun to be found here echoes that of the Johnny Depp-starring movies.

But Crichton clearly remembered an earlier era, and the swashbuckling style of the (less parodic) Errol Flynn adventues is actually the template here (you'll notice the comparisons drawn here are cinematic rather than literary - but Michael Crichton always straddled the two fields, and was a successful film director as well as novelist).

Perhaps 'Pirate Latitudes' isn't the final triumphant legacy we might wish for from Crichton, but (taken in the right spirit) it's uncomplicated, fast-moving fun. - Barry Forshaw

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